76ers

Questions for Sixers about secondary actions, Boban Marjanovic's role, Tobias Harris at the point as playoffs near

Questions for Sixers about secondary actions, Boban Marjanovic's role, Tobias Harris at the point as playoffs near

The playoffs are creeping closer and the Sixers, without Joel Embiid for the past three games, have not been playing their best basketball.  

With four games left in the regular season, here are three questions to consider: 

Can their secondary actions be effective? 

Opponents in the playoffs will be familiar with the Sixers’ favorite offensive looks. Though the Sixers can add a wrinkle here or there, a lot of their postseason success will depend on whether they can still get good shots after teams take away their primary options.

There have been a few promising signs recently that the Sixers are improvising well when the first option isn’t available and honing their sense for which secondary options tend to be open.

Below, the Sixers run a familiar action with JJ Redick curling around Ben Simmons’ screen at the wing before taking Joel Embiid’s handoff. Tobias Harris anticipates the defense leaning in Redick’s direction and makes a nice cut behind DeMarre Carroll. Both Redick and Harris are attuned to the likelihood that the defense will throw most of their attention toward Redick.

A similar action in Dallas, with Simmons and Jonah Bolden setting staggered screens for James Ennis on the right wing, flowed into a layup for Redick. Notice how Redick starts to work around Harris’ down screen on the opposite side of the floor, stops, and curls toward the rim, at which point Ennis finds him.

Jimmy Butler has shown a sharp sense for when to cut back door, a skill that should come in handy against aggressive playoff defenses. On this after-timeout action in Minnesota, Butler gives the ball to Boban Marjanovic at the right elbow and then comes to the left elbow to set a cross screen for Harris. Seeing the Timberwolves are denying Harris the ball, Butler slips to the hoop and draws a foul on Keita Bates-Diop.

Though much of the Sixers’ effective secondary actions are improvised, it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind which secondary looks are typically open and who's best suited to take advantage of those openings.

Harris and McConnell set staggered ball screens for Butler on the play below vs. Brooklyn, then McConnell screens for Harris off the ball as Butler drives right. Here, Harris decides to go back door instead of looping up off the screen, which causes Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to take a step into the paint.

No disrespect to Marjanovic, but he’s not the man you want open for a corner three. If the Sixers notice defenses consistently help off the man in the strong side corner on that action, perhaps they’ll consider putting a better outside shooter in that spot. 

What role should Boban play? 

Speaking of Marjanovic, the question of what his role should be in the playoffs remains unresolved.

We’ve already touched on his deficiencies defending pick-and-rolls. The best he’ll be able to do is drop deep into the paint to deter a drive from the ball handler. He just doesn’t have the foot speed to stop an opposing big man from taking open jump shots. 

And that issue doesn’t apply exclusively to pick-and-roll situations.

The Sixers have to weigh whether Marjanovic’s defensive limitations can be offset by his offensive abilities and the unique, minimal-jump dunks he’ll give you. 

Brett Brown might be able to identify one or two matchups against less agile centers that won’t expose Marjanovic, but it’s still unclear exactly how much — if at all — the Sixers can rely on Marjanovic in the playoffs. 

Should Harris play more at the point? 

One strength Marjanovic does have that might, in part, persuade the Sixers to give him postseason minutes, is his pick-and-roll chemistry with Harris.

If Marjanovic gets time in the playoffs, it might not be a bad idea to pair him with Harris at the point. It was one of the few things that worked for the Sixers Monday night in Dallas.

Marjanovic wiped out Harris’ man on several plays, freeing him for open jumpers.

When the Mavs adjusted by blitzing the pick-and-roll, Harris executed a quick give-and-go with Mike Scott. 

A potential downside to using Harris more at the point is he doesn’t have great feel as a passer. He handles the ball well and generally makes smart decisions — it’s just that his instincts and touch aren’t great.

But in the playoffs, running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll with Marjanovic, Harris might not need to make many difficult passes. The Sixers could encourage him to aggressively seek out his own shot for a few minutes at a time while Embiid takes a breather. 

One of the best arguments for Marjanovic having a significant role in the postseason might very well be the on-court partnership he has with his good friend. 

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Bucks' Twitter account trolls Sixers after blowout win

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@Bucks

Bucks' Twitter account trolls Sixers after blowout win

The Milwaukee Bucks were feeling better than the rest of the NBA and most definitely better than the Sixers after a 119-98 win Saturday night in Milwaukee. 

The team’s Twitter account captured that feeling of superiority with a shot at the Sixers.

Is there anything the Sixers can say in response? Reminding the Bucks that they’ve won over 50 games in each of the last two seasons or have two young All-Stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons probably wouldn’t seem very persuasive after losing by 21 points to a team on pace for more than 70 wins.

This is a case where the Sixers would likely do well to stay silent and accept the L.

They can praise Sam Hinkie's vision or craft arguments against Process skeptics on another night. 

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Ben Simmons leaves with injury in Sixers' nightmarish loss to Bucks

Ben Simmons leaves with injury in Sixers' nightmarish loss to Bucks

The Sixers’ second game after the All-Star break could have gone worse, but not by much.

They were blown out Saturday night in Milwaukee by the NBA-best Bucks, 119-98, and Ben Simmons left the game in the first quarter because of injury.

The loss drops the Sixers to 35-22, 9-20 on the road. Up next are the Hawks on Monday night (7 p.m./NBCSP).

Simmons irritates injury 

Simmons, who’d missed the Sixers’ game Thursday vs. the Nets with lower back soreness, exited after playing 4:44 and irritating the injury. 

He paused and bent down after drawing a foul on Brook Lopez, then made 1 of 2 free throws. Matisse Thybulle then took a foul on Khris Middleton to ensure Simmons could check out and go back to the locker room.

Heading into Saturday’s contest, Simmons had played 213 of a possible 230 regular-season games over the past three seasons. The 23-year-old All-Star leads the NBA in steals and is quite obviously an integral piece for the Sixers.

Other injury scares 

Tobias Harris grabbed at his right knee and limped back up the floor following a missed layup attempt in the second quarter.

Though Harris stayed in the game, it was an alarming sight, especially in the context of Simmons’ injury and Harris’ immediate reaction without any contact. He didn’t seem to be moving as well as usual after the incident.

At the end of the half, Embiid missed a tip-in off an Alec Burks layup, then appeared to grimace and hold his lower back. He didn’t miss any action. 

The Sixers entered the game with no players on the injury report, but, by the end of the first half, their overall team health was a matter of concern. 

The backup plan 

Shake Milton (17 points on 5 of 9 shooting) slid into the point guard spot when Simmons exited, sharing a backcourt with Josh Richardson early in the second quarter. The Sixers then inserted Burks in place of starter Glenn Robinson III. That lineup — with Harris and Embiid in the frontcourt — was the same one that had won the Sixers Thursday’s game in overtime. 

Again, Simmons’ injury had an impact on the team’s rotations, so it wouldn’t make sense to come to any grand conclusions. That said, the exclusion of Raul Neto until the game was out of hand is notable. Neto had started in Simmons' place Thursday. 

The inclination to try the Sixers’ three most capable pick-and-roll guards in the same lineup also suggests a desire to maximize that skill set, which is not at all surprising.

Throughout the entire season, the Sixers have been looking for players who can handle the ball, create their own shots and run a pick-and-roll. They’re hoping that Burks, who impressed with 19 points Thursday, can help in an area where they’ve been consistently lacking. Burks did not play well Saturday, shooting 3 of 13. On one third-quarter sequence, he quickly undid the good fortune of a banked-in three by missing a free throw and fouling Middleton on the ensuing possession. 

Mike Scott, a DNP vs. Brooklyn, appeared in the second half with the Sixers down double digits. 

Shooting woes 

Neither Embiid nor the Sixers started the game well. Embiid was scoreless in the first quarter and the Sixers shot 8 of 25 as a team from the field (1 of 9 from three-point range).

He was aggressive in the second quarter, scoring 12 points, getting to the foul line seven times and temporarily giving the Sixers a form of reliable half-court offense. The Sixers also did well to defend the Bucks without fouling in the first half, holding a big free throw attempt disparity (14-2) and staying close despite their continued outside shooting struggles.

That quarter was the only real positive of the night for Embiid or the Sixers. Embiid picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the third quarter, and the Sixers’ deficit grew with him on the bench. As a comeback win without Simmons looked more and more unlikely, the defensive effort deteriorated. 

Embiid hit 5 of 18 field goals and had 11 rebounds, four assists and four turnovers. He’s now made 11 of his last 44 shots in Milwaukee. 

The Sixers shot a season-worst 35 percent from the field. Al Horford was just 1 for 7. 

The reigning MVP dominates 

Embiid and Horford split defensive duties on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The reigning MVP again made it very clear that his 8-of-27 Christmas shooting effort against the Sixers was an anomaly with 31 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes. 

Thursday night, Embiid had said, “The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world.”

Antetokounmpo played like the best player in the world Saturday. 

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